Sylvie Testud may well be cinema’s successor to Isabelle Huppert, not least because her César-winning performance as Christine Papin in Murderous Maids is the broken-mirror image of Huppert’s sadomasochistic martinet in The Piano Teacher—their icebound veneers crack open and they are swallowed up in the depthless black waters beneath. Surfaces can be deceiving, as Testud points out. “Crazy is easy,” she says. “Your eyes get big, you turn red, you yell, your tongue comes out. But it’s very hard to show nothing.”
The saga of the Papin sisters, young servants who in 1933 savagely killed two members of the upper-class household they worked for, has become part of France’s permanent subtext, providing gruesome fodder for works by de Beauvoir, Lacan, and Genet. (Madame Huppert, of course, starred in Claude Chabrol’s own spin on l’affaire Papin, La Cérémonie.) “In France in the 1930s, this case was simply not possible—that a person from the lower class could kill a rich, respectable bourgeois,” says Testud, born in Lyons in 1971. “And then you add that they are women, killing other women. And then they are lesbians. And then they are sisters.”
Jean-Pierre Denis’s stark, swift retelling of the sisters’ folie à deux approaches the case not as mutable metaphor but flesh-and-blood character study, hinging on Christine’s obsession with her pliant, simple younger sister, Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier). Their incestuous melding, hardened by class resentment and an abusive family past, strands them further and further from reality. “In the outside world, they are nothing,” says Testud, who by coincidence had previously played the Christine analogue in Genet’s play The Maids at the Comédie Française. “But in their own world, they are bourgeois. They are queens of their bedroom.”
Before the three-month production began, Denis gave Testud a thick dossier, including the original police report and photographs of the victims, whom the sisters rendered unrecognizable with hammer, knife, and pewter pot. “There was a point when I said, I cannot do this; I’m not strong enough,” says Testud. In fact, she refused to do a screen test for Denis and his producers. “On this kind of character, it’s not possible—to prove that you have the nerve to kill someone, to become insane. I would have had to play a clown, a cartoon.”
The depiction of the murders themselves stretched out over two days toward the end of shooting in Le Mans, scene of the crime. “Two days of nothing but crazy, and someone is standing by with fresh blood the whole time—finally I thought, I’m fed up! I want to put on a dress, I want to go party with my friends, I’m a nice girl, I’m sick of this fucking town!” says Testud grinningly. “Nothing to do, always a gray sky, and the local people hate us because they don’t want to remember.”
Winner of the German Oscar equivalent for her turn as the musician child of deaf parents in Caroline Link’s Beyond Silence (1996), Testud was relieved to follow Murderous Maids with a supporting part in Jesse Peretz’s verbose Americans-abroad comedy The Château (set for release later this year). Next she’ll play daughter and sister to Gérard and Guillaume Depardieu in Aime Ton Père, which, to hear Testud’s cheery account of it, boasts a bonanza of familial meltdown scenes. “It’s a very heavy movie,” she concludes.
She’s made a few of those by now. “This character was a pressure cooker,” she says. “I have the feeling that Christine was a very intelligent person, but at that time, if you were in the lower ranks of society, you could not hope to get out. You could drop lower, but to be bourgeoisie—forget it. All you could do was clean. That was your whole purpose in life. Her collar was too small, and she had to rip it open just to breathe. What she did, it was horrible, but she was a victim too.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Murderous Maids